Hey Readers! I am so happy you are here! Moving your spine regularly, in multiple planes of motion, is essential for the health and functioning of your spine. Did you know that your spine basically moves in 6 different directions? Yeppers! And you can execute these 6 different movements from a variety of positions - supine (on your back), prone (belly down), kneeling, seated, standing, etc. If you are sedentary for most of the day (e.g. desk job, long commutes, etc.), you probably should try to move your spine in all six directions to keep you spine, torso, and core strong, stable, and mobile.
So, what are the six movements of the spine?? Well, there is flexion, extension, lateral flexion to either the left or ride side, and rotation to the left or right side. Let's talk about each one!
Flexion, or forward-bending, is a super common movement for the spine that basically stretches the back body, while engaging, or contracting, the front body. With the increases in modern technology that have allowed us to become more sedentary, most Americans find themselves in flexion-dominant positions during the day (e.g. hunched over a steering wheel or laptop). Thus, spinal flexion is not typically a movement or position that is lacking for most individuals. When the spine flexes, the front of the torso moves closer to the front of the thighs, or vice versa (the thighs move closer to the torso).
Spinal flexion essentially mimics the protective fetal position of babies developing in the womb. Indeed, when people feel stressed or nervous, we typically go into a flexed position in our spine in an effort to feel safe and protected. There are also studies that show that people who spend more time in flexion-dominant positions tend to have less self-esteem and confidence. Being in spinal flexion is not inherently bad; on the contrary, it is a very functional movement pattern, used in tasks like bending over to pick up an object or tie your shoes. The issue with spinal flexion is that many people spend way too much time in this position without doing anything to counteract it, such as stretching the front of the torso or strengthening the back-side of the torso. Forward bending postures, such as a forward fold, in yoga tend to involve a good amount of spinal flexion (click here to read more about forward folds).
Extension, or back-bending, is really the opposite of spinal flexion and occurs when the front of the torso moves further away from the front of the thighs (or vice versa). Spinal extension basically engages or contracts the muscles on the back-body while lengthening or stretching the muscles of the front-body. Movements involving spinal extension are not nearly as common in our daily postures, partly because of the positions we are in as a result of modern technology. As discussed above, most people tend to spend much of their day in flexion-dominant positions, such as sitting hunched over an iPad or computer. Thus, many people tend to have weaker, but lengthened, back muscles. Spinal extension postures actually work to strengthen the back musculature. If you are a flexion-dominant person, it is super important for you to spend some time every day in extension postures to counteract all the flexion in your day. Yoga postures that involve spinal extension include: cow stretch, locust pose, cobra pose (or baby cobra pose), bow pose (click here to read more about this pose), dancer's pose (click here to read more about this pose), wheel pose, upward facing dog pose, and more.
Lateral flexion, or side-bending, is essentially like spinal flexion (discussed above), but to either the right or left sides of the body, rather than forward. When you laterally flex your spine to the one side, the contralateral, or opposite, side stretches, especially through the rib cage and side abdominals. Stretching and opening the rib cage is SUPER important for your breathing dynamics. Between each rib are muscles known as intercostals, which are significant players when breathing. If these muscles are tight, stiff, or too short from lack of sufficient movement, your inhalations and exhalations can become much more shallow. When the breath is more shallow, it makes your nervous system think you are stressed or in danger, and this triggers a cascade of stress-based reactions in the body that can cause you to feel worried or anxious. And if you breathe shallowly for a long time, it can lead to a ton of other diseases and medical conditions.
If you side-bend with your arms overhead, you also get a nice stretch for the latissimus dorsi (i.e. "lats") muscle and shoulder area contralateral to the side you bend towards. This is great for the body, as most people tend to have shortened or restricted lats, and this can cause the spine and other joints to get pulled out of alignment. Movements involving lateral flexion are not necessarily as common as say general spinal flexion, simply because it is more rare for us to reach over our head and laterally flex our spine to one side to grab or pick up something. Even though lateral flexion movements might not be as common during a typical person's day, you should still try to engage in this type of movement regularly in order to keep your rib cage and other trunk muscles healthy and mobile. Yoga postures that involve lateral flexion include pretty much any pose that adds a side-bend to it, such as a reverse warrior 2 position.
Spinal rotation, or twisting, involves rotating the trunk to either the left or right sides. When your rotate your trunk to one side, you engage some abdominal and spinal muscles, while stretching other abdominal and spinal muscles (click here to read more about spinal rotation, and here to read more about different spinal rotation exercises you can try). Spinal rotation also helps to keep the joints between each vertebrae hydrated and healthy. Additionally, rotating the torso left and right can help to "massage" the abdominal organs, potentially making your internal organ system operate more efficiently.
Spinal rotation is actually a pretty common movement that we can engage in during the day, such as when reaching behind you to grab something, like your seatbelt. If you are in the same position(s) for much of the day, such as sitting at a computer or standing in front of a classroom, you should try to add some spinal rotation movements into your day to keep the muscles and joints in your torso healthy and mobile. If you participate in certain physical hobbies or sports, such as golfing, baseball, or even tennis, then rotational movements are likely pretty important for you and should be practiced regularly to ensure that the movement is as safe and efficient as possible. Yoga postures that involve spinal rotation include pretty much any posture where you add a rotation, such as a lunge with a twist or thread-the-needle pose.
The spine essentially moves in six general directions - forward, backward, and to either side via rotation or side-bending. Engaging in these six movements throughout your day, from a variety of positions, is super beneficial for the health of your spine and torso, especially if you are in the same posture for most of the day. Try to complete these movements with your breath, meaning move with your inhalations and exhalations. It doesn't really matter when you inhale versus exhale, rather what matters is that you continue to breathe, synching your breath with your movement in, and out of, these positions. When executing these movements, pay attention to the sensations that you experience, particularly around your spine. If a posture feels too sensational, or begins to edge into more pain-like sensation, ease off a bit and see if that helps. Also, notice how you feel after you do these movements, in your breath, mind, and body. And most importantly, have fun and honor what feels most authentic and natural for you. Thanks so much for reading!
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement, anatomy, and yoga. If you have questions about your spinal health or mobility, please follow up with your physician, physical therapist, or personal trainer. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-CNC